Three Sonnets

148

Celia saw a rose which in happy self-praise
flaunted its pomp and vanity in the field,
cosmetics of carmine and cochineal
merrily smeared over its delicate face;
 
Savor without fear of Fate, she stopped to say,
the fleeting course of your youthful hour,
the death of tomorrow has no power
to take the pleasure you enjoy today.
 
although death may come, and it comes fast,
don’t grieve when fragrant life returns to mould 
and you die while youth and loveliness last;
 
consider, by experience you are told
it’s good fortune to die before beauty’s past
and never know the affront of growing old.
 —translated from the Spanish by Enriqueta Carrington
 
 

158

Madam, Lady Rose, lovely paradigm
of all blossoms Sun and Moon gaze upon:
why linger in your cradle, if you’re grown,
why fear human ravage, if you’re divine?
 
When wind blows cold on you, why do you pine?
why so humble before the whims of fortune?
begging for food from a muddy lagoon,
with its turbid humours, why do you whine?
 
I well know you’ll say to me that you deplore
the way I disrespect you with my bad prose.
Truth is, I have found this a difficult chore;
 
your worshipful ladyship should know, Madam Rose,
that I write to you one sonnet and no more,
just because it’s a scratch every scribbler owes.  
—translated from the Spanish by Enriqueta Carrington

 

147.

Divine rose, lady of genteel culture,
elegant in fragrant subtelty,
you’re a  crimson master class on beauty,
on snowy loveliness you’re a lecture.
 
Ideal of human architecture,
paradigm of vainest gentility,
in whom nature achieved the unity
of happy cradle and sad sepulchre.
 
How haughty in your pomp you presume,
how proudly the risk of death you defy,
how soon after, wan and withered, you swoon, 
 
a languid vestige of yourself, and die;
foolish in your vigour, wise in your doom,
in life you deceive, in death you edify!
—translated from the Spanish by Enriqueta Carrington

 

 

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born around 1648, in a hamlet high on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano, in what was then New Spain, one of the kingdoms of the Spanish Empire, and is now Mexico. The third of six illegitimate children born to Isabel Ramírez de Santillana, Juana Inés grew up in the small hacienda of Panoayan, on the mountain slopes close to the place of her birth, where she learnt to speak Spanish from her family and Nahuatl from the slaves. Isabel never learned to read and write, since many thought such accomplishments redundant in a woman, but she arranged for all her children to receive instruction. Tagging along to her elder sister’s lessons, Juana Inés learned to read at the age of three and proceeded to go through the books in her grandfather’s library, starting her long quest to comprehend all of human knowledge. Around the age of seven, she kept pestering her mother for permission to dress as a boy so that she could attend the university. This absurd dream never came true, but by age sixteen she was living in the viceroyal court in Mexico City, as favorite of the Vicereine, Doña Leonor Carreto, who became the child-prodigy’s friend and protector and would eventually save many of the poet’s works from destruction.

As a girl, Juana Inés usually used her mother’s family name, Ramírez de Santillana, and occasionally her father’s, de Asbaje. She is now known mostly as Sor (that is, Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz. This was the name she adopted in her late teens, when she took the veil at the Convent of San Jerónimo in Mexico City. Never again, for the rest of her life, did she set foot outside that cloister. She later wrote that many aspects of a nun’s life were repugnant to her, but she understood that her ideal of living alone, studying and writing without interruption, was impossible. Marriage, she knew, would place even more constraints on her love for letters. The nunnery was thus “the least disproportionate and most decent thing” she could choose. This compromise life-choice worked well for over two decades: Sor Juana Inés carved out a space for her writing amidst her nun’s duties; in her conventual cell she produced a cornucopia of poems, plays, and prose. Personal and literary friends visited her in the convent’s locutory. Her work received much acclaim and became the seventeenth-century equivalent of a best-seller in Spain and its dominions. She is still considered Mexico’s greatest poet (her name and image appear on the two-hundred peso banknote). But a female who wrote erotic and jocose sonnets (as well as religious ones) and dared express opinions on theology was unendurable to certain powerful men, in particular Aguiar y Seijas, Archbishop of Mexico. This prelate hated women so much he never allowed one into his house, even to scrub the floors, and never looked one in the face. While Sor Juana Inés had viceroyal protectors, he was forced to tolerate her, but by 1693 they were gone and the Archbishop struck. The poet was compelled to give up her reading and writing, her library of 4,000 books and her collection of musical and scientific instruments were sold for a pittance; the Archbishop appropriated the proceeds “for charity.” She was allowed to keep only three small books – prayer books, of course. She did not live long after that. In 1695 an epidemic swept the city, carrying off most of the nuns in the convent; Sor Juana Inés nursed the sickest sisters and caught the infection, dying on the 17th of April, 1695. —Enriqueta Carrington

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About Juana Inés de la Cruz

Enriqueta Carrington’s poetry in Spanish and English has appeared in The Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera, Contemporary Sonnet, and US1 Worksheets, among other publications. It has received the Atlanta Journal’s International Merit Award. Her poetry translations have appeared in several journals, including Rattapallax and A Gathering of the Tribes. She is the translator of several volumes of poetry, including “Treasury of Mexican Love Poems” (Hippocrene Books), “Samandar: Libro de Viajes/Book of Travels,” by Lourdes Vázquez (Editorial Tsé-Tsé, Argentina), and “Cybele, As She Dreams” by Lourdes Vázquez (now in process of publication). She teaches mathematics at Rutgers University.